A view half above water showing a mountainous island and half below water showing a colorful, healthy coral reef
Lord Howe Island Islands are critical features of healthy marine ecosystems. Conservation on islands can provide important benefit for associated near-shore systems, like coral reefs. © Jordan Robins/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Perspectives

Radical Collaboration Can Save Coral Reefs

We've already lost half the ocean's reefs—now the fate of the other half depends on governments, local communities and the private sector.

Global Reef Systems Lead
Lizzie Mcleod Global Reef Systems Lead

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The facts are clear: Our world’s coral reefs have reached a crisis point, pushing many species to the verge of extinction. In the last three decades alone, we have lost more than half of the world’s corals, including large swaths of the iconic Great Barrier Reef. Scientists estimate that if the threats to reefs are not confronted, 90 percent of coral reefs could be gone within our lifetimes. 

The dangers to corals are real and growing. But I’ve worked on reef conservation for 20 years, and now, more than ever before, I believe that there is hope.

The world’s oceans are heating up 40 percent faster than was once predicted, leading to mass coral bleaching. Meanwhile, oceans are becoming more acidic, reducing corals’ ability to grow and build their skeletons. These climate-related impacts are compounded by human activities such as unsustainable fishing and tourism, dredging, and pollution. 

But we can save the world’s coral reefs if we act now. Later this year, global policymakers are setting once-in-a-decade targets for conservation of biodiversity, which could drive new investment to protection efforts. New science suggests that “super reefs”—more resilient to a changing climate and warmer seas—could provide new opportunities for restoring threatened reefs.

Common sea fan, Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Bahamas. The Nature Conservancy works closely with partners such as the Bahamas National Trust and the government of the Bahamas to protect the marine habitat of the Exuma Cays and achieve the goal for the long term protection of national parks through the Caribbean Challenge.   (C) Jeff Yonover
COMMON, BUT WONDROUS This common sea fan lives in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas, where TNC works closely with partners including the Bahamas National Trust and the Bahamian government to protect marine habitat. © Jeff Yonover

We have already lost 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs, but we still have 50 percent left. The next 10 years offer a critical window of opportunity to improve the health of our corals, and by doing so increase the safety of our shores and secure the livelihoods of coastal communities around the world. Together we can help ensure that coral reefs not only survive today’s threats but thrive for the benefit of generations to come.

Because this isn’t just about the awe-inspiring biodiversity of coral reefs. Over 1 billion people depend on these reefs for food and income. More than a quarter of all marine species spend at least some part of their life in coral reefs, including species that both commercial and subsistence fishermen depend on. Reefs also protect coastal communities from erosion, flooding and storms—a healthy coral reef can reduce wave force by 97 percent—and generate billions of dollars in value for the tourism and other sectors, not to mention live-saving medicines. 

According to a recent publication by leading coral reef scientists globally, “without action, coral reefs as we know them today—and their associated services to humankind (food production, shoreline protection, tourism, economic resources, cultural values)—could be one of the first major ecosystems in this century to collapse under the weight of climate change.

We have already lost half the world’s coral reefs, but the other half still need our action. The next 10 years offer a critical window of opportunity...

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is globally recognized as a leading NGO on coral reef protection, management, and restoration with decades of on-the-ground work in major reef regions. TNC currently works in over 32 coral reef countries, covering 40 percent of the world’s coral reefs. 

Through the Reef Resilience Network, a global knowledge-sharing network for reef managers, we have trained over 25,000 marine managers reaching 75 percent of reef nations. As a global leader in coral reef conservation, TNC has the tools and resources to help save coral reefs—but we must work quickly and we must work together. 

TNC’s goal is to protect 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs by 2030 and to restore critical source reefs that provide the essential larvae to support natural reef recovery.

To do this, we must:

PROTECT REEFS: Establish new marine protected areas and improve the management of existing areas by partnering with local people who know their reefs best.

RESTORE REEFS: Use cutting-edge science to restore the health of damaged coral reefs while promoting the genetic diversity that increases their resilience to climate change.

EMPOWER REEF MANAGERS: Rapidly deploy new techniques in reef protection and restoration, reaching marine practitioners in every coral reef country and territory across the globe, through our Reef Resilience Network

UNLOCK FUNDING: Develop and deploy innovative ways to fund coral reef conservation now and into the future, through innovative financing like reef insurance and debt conversions.

BUILD LONG-TERM COMMITMENTS: Drive ambitious national and global policies to increase marine protected areas and locally managed marine areas, reduce threats to reefs, and improve reef management.

But we cannot do it alone. Success requires solid science, a global commitment to protecting and restoring reefs, and radical partnerships across governments, communities, NGOs, researchers, businesses, and younger generations who will inherit the responsibility of conserving reefs. Engaging businesses in reef action, like our collaboration with SHEBA to restore more than 185,000 square meters of coral reef, demonstrates the power of such partnerships.

Working together, we can reduce threats to our reefs and increase reefs under protection. We can deploy innovative techniques to rebuild reef structure and jump-start reef recovery. And through these efforts, we will demonstrate, for the first time, that we can restore entire reef ecosystems.

By saving this iconic ecosystem, we can prove to the world that it is possible to reverse the decline of valuable habitats and species. In doing so, we ensure not only a future for coral reefs, but also for the millions of marine species and one billion people who depend upon them for survival.

Global Reef Systems Lead

Lizzie Mcleod leads TNC's coral reef work as the Global Reef Systems Lead on the Global Oceans Team. 

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